Public health officials on Wednesday announced the discovery of more coronavirus cases involving the omicron variant in Washington state, indicating substantial community spread of the variant across the region.

The news comes as researchers are rushing to find out the implications of omicron, which was first identified in South Africa and has spread “explosively fast” in other places, such as the U.K., health officials said. Earlier this week, top U.S. officials warned an omicron surge could peak with a wave of infections as soon as January — and health experts are renewing a push for vaccinations and booster shots.

Now, Washington state officials are meeting to discuss potential changes to guidance around COVID-19.

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At least 12 omicron cases have been confirmed across Washington, including three new cases connected to high school wrestling tournaments on Dec. 4, though few additional details were immediately available. Last week, King County confirmed five other omicron cases. Information was only available for three of those infected people, none of whom had been hospitalized, county health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin said Wednesday.

The three infected people reported recent travel within the United States, but none has traveled internationally, meaning omicron is circulating locally, Duchin said. The three were fully vaccinated, and one had received a booster dose.

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There’s no evidence yet that the group of five King County cases are linked to one other, or to the first case of omicron identified in the county, which was announced in early December.

At least one omicron case each has been in reported in Pierce, Thurston and Whatcom counties, though health officials and researchers say the total statewide number is likely much higher.

“Although delta currently makes up the vast majority of cases in King County and regionally, omicron virus spreads explosively fast,” Duchin said. “I expect we’ll see a rapid increase in omicron in the coming days and weeks.”

Tournaments fuel outbreaks

The three new King County cases announced Wednesday are connected to multiple COVID cases traced to high school wrestling tournaments in Lacey, Sumner, Puyallup and Yelm earlier this month.

State epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist said Wednesday over 80 infections have been traced back to participating wrestling teams, and is expecting the number to increase as sequencing and contact tracing continues. The infections span at least 20 schools just in King County, Duchin said.

Photos and videos of the tournaments show people crowded in bleachers without masks, flouting masking requirements, Lindquist said. The state Department of Health guidance for athletics and K-12 school environments requires anyone not actively participating in a sport to be wearing a mask, and also requires regular testing for unvaccinated athletes in high-contact sports.

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With the emergence of omicron, however, local and state public health officials in Washington are meeting Wednesday to discuss whether they need to revise the guidelines, he said.

Lindquist did not mention any specific recommendations that may be on the table.

The department urges anyone who attended these tournaments to watch for symptoms and get a coronavirus test. Local health jurisdictions are also likely to notify the affected schools to offer further guidance, according to the DOH.

“It’s really important to understand we don’t have all the answers about omicron currently, and a lot remains uncertain about how this variant will affect us,” Duchin said. “But we do know enough about omicron to take it very seriously and to take steps to decrease our risk.”

Tracking a spike-protein mutation

As of this week, researchers around the world have found increasing evidence that the new variant is “significantly” more transmissible than the delta variant, and also spreads primarily through the air in indoor spaces, Duchin said.

“The number of cases in several countries that recognized omicron earlier than the U.S. is doubling every two or three days,” he added.

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Early evidence shows strong signs the new variant is also spreading quickly in the state, according to the University of Washington’s virology lab, which has been sequencing the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.

To find signs of the variant, the lab — like many others in the U.S. — has started running all positive samples through a particular PCR test that searches for a mutation called spike gene target failure, or a small deletion in the omicron variant’s spike protein.

“It’s an early indicator of which samples might be omicron, by virtue of the fact that they bear a very specific mutation, which allows us to pick them up,” said Pavitra Roychoudhury, acting instructor in the University of Washington’s department of laboratory medicine and pathology and a researcher in the school’s virology lab.

As of Wednesday morning, Roychoudhury said about 20% of all positive coronavirus samples have the spike-gene mutation, meaning about a fifth might be omicron. Last week, about 13% of samples had the mutation, Roychoudhury said on Twitter.

While the mutation doesn’t definitively identify the variant — confirmation is done through genetic sequencing — the lab can use the spike-gene mutation as a “proxy for an approximate number of omicron cases in the population,” Roychoudhury said. 

Roychoudhury said she and her team previously used the assay in January, to search for the alpha variant, which shares a similar mutation to omicron. 

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“It certainly suggests that this is a highly transmissible variant given that we’re detecting this increasing percent of these cases over time,” she said. “But how this is going to hold up against delta in our specific geographic region is something that remains to be seen.”

The high transmissibility shouldn’t be a “cause for panic,” since it doesn’t necessarily mean increased severity, Roychoudhury said. Instead, she said she hopes knowing that might motivate people to change certain habits, such as masking and distancing.

“Disappointing setback”

Duchin during the Wednesday briefing also renewed a push for vaccinations and boosters, which early data shows offer protection against serious illness from the omicron variant, even if they’re not as effective against infection.

“Everyone should be prepared for eventually many of us being infected,” Duchin said. “Being infected doesn’t mean getting seriously ill.”

In addition to getting vaccinated and boosted, recommended layered prevention methods include wearing fitted masks, improving indoor air ventilation and air quality, distancing and avoiding “high-risk environments.”

Even if serious illness is rare in omicron cases, a large number of people falling sick in a short period of time could be a problem for the state’s already overburdened health care system, as well as businesses and companies that rely on having a consistent number of employees show up, Duchin said.

“The emergence of omicron is a disappointing setback in where we hoped to be two years into this pandemic,” he said. “Despite this, we’re not going back to square one of the pandemic. We have effective vaccines to prevent serious illness and we know what works to prevent COVID-19 spread in the community. And overtime, I’m confident that increasing immunity from vaccination and some exposure to the virus will make COVID-19 less and less of a threat.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated the three omicron cases linked to wrestling tournaments occurred in residents outside King County. All three are King County residents.